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Panorama: Blessed Chavara: A Luminous Star of India
 

8th December 2005

Blessed Chavara: A Luminous Star of India

 

 

Mathew Kaniamparampil

 

 

Two hundred years ago there appeared in the horizon of the Indian Church a star luminous and extra ordinary.  Centuries cannot leave into oblivion thoughts of such rare pearls that appeared on this earth and left this earthly sojourn after illuminating an entire era and area.  Such a bright star of India was Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara of joyful memories.  The Church in India rejoices today as the Bi-centenary year of his birth has been launched on 3rd January 2004, by His Eminence Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, along with 10 Bishops, 150 Priests, 600 Sisters and about 10,000 devotees at Mannanam, near Kottayam, where his mortal remains are enshrined.

Chavara:  Pioneer of Religious Life in India

The 300 odd Religious Congregations of India and about 95,000 members in them today must be grateful to this great luminary of religious life in the Indian Church.  In 1831, when there existed no Indian religious congregation in this land, Blessed Chavara along with two other diocesan priests, Fr. Thomas Palackal and Fr. Thomas Porukara, founded the now-existing first Religious Congregation of India. That is the CMI Congregation.  In 1866, by the cooperative effort of B. Chavara and Fr. Leopold Beccaro, an Italian Carmelite Missionary priest, the now-existing first religious society for women in the Syro-Malabar Church was founded.  That is the CMC congregation. Today it has a membership of more than 6000 Sisters. These two religious congregations later in the 20th century inspired the emergence of so many religious congregations for men and women in the Indian Church.

Blessed Chavara was luminant and unique not only in the religious field.  His contributions in the ecclesial and socio-cultural levels remain ever remarkable.

A Man of Ecclesial Vision

The Syro-Malabar Church is indebted to Bl. Chavara because it was he who protected it at a crucial and decisive movement of its in the turbulent history of this 19 century-old Church in India. He saved it from a terrific schismatic threat called the Roccosian schism. He was also the Vicar General of this Church at that time.

It was also Bl. Chavara and his confreres who imparted greater vitality to this Church by introducing several innovations into its rank and file.  Being motivated by a deep-rooted love for the Church, he received inspiration and adopted several devotional practices from the global Church.  Some of them are introducing retreat preaching for the laity in all parishes, the Way of the Cross, the Rosary, codification of the canonical prayers of Priests, and a systematic Seminary formation for the future Priests. He believed that if only efficient and holy Priests are trained, the faith of our people and their sacramental life could be sustained. Bl. Chavara and his companions were entrusted with this great task by the then Church authorities. The Seminary established at Mannanam in 1831 saw to the training of not only the CMIs but also of the diocesan seminarians for more than half a century. There was a time when 150 seminarians lived there at a time.

He introduced the Eucharistic devotion, especially though the 40 hour adoration.  The present elderly generation of the Kerala church still cherishes the sweet memories of this devotional practice which imparted the faithful great spiritual experience. People used to flock the various Ashram Churches where this devotion was practiced.  Similarly, the Way of the Cross introduced by him became very popular. Itís solemn recitation, especially on the Fridays of the Lent, ascending hilly and hard terrains, imitating the last journey of Jesus to Calvary, elevated the minds of our faithful to greater heights of life touching and life-transforming experiences.

Blessed Chavara loved the Church and the Church also loved him.  He earnestly desired that the Church should not merely remain as a preservative and static container of the faith brought to India by St. Thomas the Apostle of Jesus.  He visualized that this Church must become active in faith expressions, vibrant in spirituality; and dynamic in witnessing to and propagating the same to other people.

Champion of social reformation

Blessed Chavara is a luminary not only in the spiritual and ecclesial levels. He was also one of the topmost social reformers India has even seen.  Imagine the socio-cultural situation of Kerala just two centuries ago.  It was a place with practically no literacy and systematic educational systems. There existed radical casteism triggering inhuman discriminations. He visualized a society when all people can live in the joy of the children of God, enjoying equality, freedom and prosperity.

The basic vision of Bl. Chavara for brightening up the society started with the idea of imparting literacy to our people.  He firmly believed that a society could make progress only through knowledge and wisdom.  Education is the central factor for any basic development. He established at Mannanam the first Catholic school of Kerala in 1846. That school is the mother of all private educational institutions in the Catholic sector in Kerala.  He started that tiny little centre of learning as a Sanskrit school.  It also was indicative of his far-reacting vision.  At that time, only high caste people were allowed to learn Sanskrit the Vedic language.  Other people were not only prohibited from learning that language but also prevented from going to any learning at all.  Bl. Chavara opened the portals of his school, and all the other schools established by his followers in other places, to all people irrespective of caste and creed.  Later, his decisive order in 1861 added to this great momentum. His radical vision of education motivated him to issue an important order when he became the Vicar General of the Syrians in 1861. He ordered all Churches to open schools adjacent to them compulsorily. This order became the magna carta for a revolutionary paradigm shift in the socio-cultural development of Kerala. If the Kerala society is topping the list of literacy in this land today, and making great advancement in the fields of science, technology and inter-national service through incessant migration, it should be indebted to this great visionary called Bl. Chavara.

Bl. Chavara is also the champion of printing and publications in the Kerala Church. He established the first printing press at Mannanam in 1844 and from there emerged many books for the enrichment of our people. Later in 1887, Mannanam saw the inception of the newspaper DEEPIKA, the first Catholic Daily of India.

Blessed Chavara also believed that the health and strength of the society depends not only the growth of the people in general. It depends greatly on how the society takes care of the weak, the disabled, the sick and the aged members of the society.  In view of caring for them, it was Bl. Chavara who founded the first ĎCharitable institutioní in Kerala.  It was in Kainakari in the year 1869.

When Bl. Chavara took the initiative to start the first religious congregation for women in India in 1866, namely the CMC Congregation, he had also a far-reaching social mission in his mind.  Well-trained and well-motivated religious women must come forward as the catalytic agents for social reformation from the grass-root level. He thought, these women should enter the field of family apostolate, motivating our families to enter the path of progress in every level.

Chavara the bridge-builder

Blessed Chavara was a bridge-builder, especially between the Latin and the Syrian Churches, between the global and the local Churches. His own Guru Fr. Thomas Palackal had introduced him to the rich religious ethos and the spiritual granaries of the universal Church during his seminary days and later by his spiritual director Fr. Leopold Beccaro, OCD. Chavara had been also impressed by the depth and richness of the Indian spirituality propounded by our enlightened Sages of ancient times. May be his knowledge of Sanskrit and the Indian genius prompted him to start the first religious House in Mannanam by the name Darsana Veedu (House of divine vision). What is reflected in the vision of Blessed Chavara is an integration of the East and the West, probing and throbbing beyond the boundaries of the Rites and diversities of cultures. This vision of Blessed Chavara resembles the great Indian vision expressed in the Rig Vedic dictum, Ano Bhadra Kratavo Yanthu Viswatah (Rig Veda I.89.i), which means, let noble thoughts enter our land from anywhere in the world. Indeed, Blessed Chavara will be considered by historians as a great bridge-builder and a man of integral vision.

Basically a man of God

Blessed Chavara was a man of action throughout his life. His was a multifaceted personality with great vibrancy and efficiency. Within the span of less than half a century, he triggered innovations which ordinary humans could do in centuries. However, the central feature behind his marvellous success can be sourced back to his radical spiritual vision. That was his basic darsan and his close affinity with the divine.   His commitment to God was radical.  The ultimate source of his power was prayer.  His prayer life was constant and consistent.  He used to pray hours before the Blessed Sacrament shedding tears.  It was from here that he learned the lessons of holiness.  Receiving power and inspiration from his Master Jesus, he sanctified himself.  In him we find a perfect integration of a Jnana Yogi, Karma Yogi, and a Bhakti Yogi.  The power he received from this basic integration of wisdom and action with commitment to God, in turn, sanctified and enriched the whole Church and the society.

Recognizing the personal sanctity of Fr. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, the Church elevated him to the ranks of Blessedís in 1986.  The Government of India also acknowledged his great services towards social reformations and released a commemorative postal stamp in 1987.  The Jayanthi year celebrated in the year 2004-05 was made a golden time to make deeper studies and extensive researches on the vast and significant contributions of this precious pearl of India.

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